Scrum, Agile and the Art of Active Listening

How communications enhances agile team dynamics
Scrum, Agile and the Art of Active Listening

Communication is essential to agile team and project success. In fact, two pillars mentioned in the scrum guide —  transparency and inspection — can only be maintained if an agile team communicates well with one another.  One of the most important aspects of agile communication is listening, which can be a challenge for people. 

Scrum Team Communication Issues

On the scrum team, the product owner communicates through user stories, backlog refinement, daily scrum and sprint reviews., etc.  It is important that the team understands the expectations and communicates impediments so that the progress is made each sprint. 

Communication Breakdown

Imagine you are a product owner and you’re attending a backlog refinement session with all team members who are involved in a major initiative. During the refinement, you present the work with the team to align product backlog items, as well as the acceptance criteria. Team members asks questions and show non-verbal cues like nodding their heads, symbolizing engagement. 

Once you get to talking about how to break the product backlog items down for this specific initiative, one of the team members who had appeared distracted for the first part of the meeting because they’ve been keeping their attention on their laptop and their eyes wandering the room asks, “So, what is the overall need behind the epic?” 

As the product owner,, you might feel frustrated and think, “was this person paying attention at all?” What’s worse, is when other team members start asking the same questions that you’ve already answered. Then the session starts to spiral out of control until the scrum master intervenes. She instructs them to review the stories on the storyboard, and reach out to you if they have any questions, concerns, or need any additional detail. Believe it or not, this scenario happens a lot on scrum teams and that's why Interpersonal communication skills are so important.

Steps for Improvement

To be a great communicator, you must also be a good listener and show emotional intelligence. Practicing active listening goes beyond simply hearing words, instead it requires that you understand the meaning and context of what is being said. The best way to encourage others to improve their communication skills is to lead by example. Begin by adopting these skills on your own. 

The difference between being a good and great listener is active listening. Active listening involves both listening and interpreting what the other person is trying to communicate beyond the words used in order to understand the essence of the message. Some ways to demonstrate active listening are summarizing, repeating, and confirming what was stated to make sure everyone is on the same page.

How to Actively Listen 

We all know that listening begins with hearing with your ears. But Beyond simply hearing, it is important to demonstrate that you understand what the other person is trying to explain. If you can do this,  you  can transform relational equity in the workplace. After hearing what someone is saying to you, try summarizing in your own words what they said. This technique is not just for you but for the speaker as well. It shows that you really care enough to get the details right and gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify anything that you may have misunderstood.  Doing this also demonstrates the scrum value of respect! In addition to using your ears, it is imperative (and respectful) to also use your eyes, heart, and mind. According to Everett Bowes, when you listen with more than your ears, that is “Active Listening.” 

Active Listening Takes Hard Work and Effort

Eye contact is the key indicator that people look for when determining if someone is listening. I remember every time my mom taught me a valuable lesson while growing up; she would say, “Look at me while I am talking to you!” She wanted to make sure that I listened and processed the message, and most importantly, she wanted to be sure that she was heard. 

One of the best ways to listen is to make sure your eyes serve as a reflection of your interest and focus. Showing respect makes it easier to build relationships and leadership equity amongst your colleagues.

To be in the full agile mindset, you need to show up fully. Listening with your heart shows this. “When ears open wide, the heart opens up too.” (Goodrich, Richelle E., 2017). When listening with your heart, our faces and body react differently to the words we hear which gives the speaker an idea of how we feel about what was just said. This is called body language which is part of non-verbal communication. 

Researchers say 80% of communication is non-verbal. Even changes in our eyes, lips, eyebrows, and shoulders, and posture have an effect with our communication, resulting from truly listening with our heart. Raquel Welch once said “You can’t fake listening. It shows.” To truly listen with your heart, you need to tap into a sense of genuine interest. This is key, because it will unlock a whole new realm of productivity, appreciation, and value for the organization that you work for as a whole!

To practice the important agile value of focus, along with listening with your eyes, ears, and heart, you must listen with your mind. Focus and provide the speaker with your undivided attention. “Listen with the will to learn” (Ramaru, Unarine). In today’s fast-paced world, everyone is multi-tasking and digital technology allows us to think we are getting better at it. When it comes to feeling heard, no one wants to talk to a multi-tasker.

Active listening takes a lot of commitment (another agile value) and desire to be attentive. Everyone wants to feel important , and active listening is one of the ways to do so. So, when someone is speaking to you, stop everything you’re doing, look them in their eyes, listen with your ears, then your heart will open with empathy and understanding.

Techniques to Master Active Listening

To master the art of active listening, keep practicing – both with your work colleagues and out-of-office with your family, and friends. As you practice you’ll become more aware of how your messages are coming across, and eventually it becomes second nature. Below are some basic techniques:

1. Paraphrasing

2. Using nonverbal language

3. Emotional labeling

4. Using silence

5. Redirecting

6. Mirroring

7. Validating


Paraphrasing allows you to seek and clarify that you understood the speaker correctly. If the paraphrase is inaccurate, this gives an opportunity for the speaker to correct you (which is fine). If accurate, the speaker feels understood and heard. This technique increases the likeability on both sides. If the speaker feels like you are agreeing with them, they will likely have a positive view of you.

Using Nonverbal Language

When a listener uses nonverbal cues, it makes the speaker feel important and helps add meaning to the message that they’re trying to deliver. Nonverbal language includes the following:

  • Paralanguage - using vocalizations such as “m-hmm” & “ahh”

  • Voice tone and volume

  • Hand and head gestures

  • Posture

  • Facial expressions

  • Body positioning

Emotional Labeling

This technique is simply just noticing, acknowledging, and naming that emotion (both positive and negative). Examples of negative emotional labeling are:

  • “You seem really upset right now.”

  • “This step in the progress must be super-aggravating because it sounds like it results in rework.”

Using Silence

Silence is crucial when it comes to listening. It may feel awkward at first, but it is very effective. It can be used to give speakers space or uninterrupted time to speak, collect their thoughts, and feel the depth and breadth of their emotions. Silence also allows listeners a moment to collect their own thoughts and feelings, and paraphrase in their mind.


There will be times that a speaker will go off topic, resulting in lost conversation. Redirection can be used to pivot the conversation back to the original subject and prevent any heated discussions.


Mirroring is the process by which a listener physically and behaviorally mirrors a speaker. This is important because it allows the speaker to feel more relatable to listeners who have similar mannerisms and feel more connected. Keep in mind that mirroring should not be overused or exaggerated so people won’t misinterpret as impersonation or mocking.


Active listening allows speakers to free emotions and opinions. It is our job as listeners to acknowledge their emotions and opinions, regardless if we agree or not. Everyone has a right to feel and express. Speakers feel understood & supported after being validated. Examples of validation include:

  • “You have every right to be frustrated.”

  • “It’s quite alright to be upset.”



Active listening provides a path in the right direction to solving the most complex problems. It reflects the agile values of respect, commitment, openness, and focus. Active listening builds stronger relationships and more opportunities to solve conflicts. As agile practitioners, active listening can make us better communicators, thinkers, and enthusiasts.

 Related Webinar: Empowering Teams with Values-Based Communication

Works Cited

Bowes, Everett. Active Listening Masterclass

Goodier, Steve. “The key to good listening isn’t technique, it’s desire.”

Goodrich, Richelle E. (2017). Slaying Dragons: Quotes, Poetry, & a few Short Stories for Every Day of the

Year. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Publishing

 Leonardo, Nixaly, LCSW. (2020). Active Listening Techniques: 30 Practical Tools to Hone Your

Communication Skills. Emeryville, CA: Rockbridge Press

Peck, M. Scott, M.D. (2003). The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love,

Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. New York City, NY: Touchstone

Ramaru, Unarine. “Listen with the will to learn.”

Welch, Raquel. ‘You can’t fake listening. It shows.’


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